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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
So I was talking to a friend the other day, and she said that the school she taught at had one computer in each classroom, reserved for games, plus the teacher's password-protected unit. I had been thinking for a while now about teaching I.T. to students, and developing digital literacy in classrooms. I had considered many potential problems which may present themselves to me, on my mission to promote computer and internet fluency; none was as daunting as the actual absence of computers.

So this got me thinking...

First, I'll explain why I believe the absence of hardware to be the most difficult obstacle between a willing teacher and digital literacy. Second, I will offer some simple, basic and intuitive suggestions for tackling this obstacle. Last, I will offer my BIG IDEA, an idea which not only responds to the problem posed, but does so in a way that explores digital literacy.

To begin: why is absent hardware the biggest problem an enthusiastic digital literacy teacher can face? Consider (as I did) all the other problems which might present themselves to a well intentioned teacher.

(1) A school might have a troglodyte for a principal, the trickle-down effect of which may be institutionalized technophobia. It's hard to imagine a principal who is afraid of technology in the modern school system, but were we to find one, one of two things would be the case. Either the principal would have no hardware available at the school, or he might, but simply not support its use. If there are no computers, then we are back to my initial 'big problem'. If there are, then the only problem is 'how might I use these computers without upsetting the troglodyte'. People tend to fear that which they do not understand; this principal may be brought into compliance with a progressive approach to technology by first teaching the individual what you want to teach the students. It may take time, but offer this person technical support - help them with their technophobia by aiding them with their technology. Does the photocopier break down often? Tell the principal that with the push of a button, he can offload the copying to the staff by e-mailing a memo as a PDF. Are supplies costing too much, bring in your own LCD projector and show the principal how he can reign in the costs of copying and making overheads.

(2) A school may have a strong, technophobic PAC. Imagine a district with very puritanical citizens, who view the internet as a source of smut (it of course is, but not just that). By choosing your wording in class carefully, you can prepare your students to run home after school exclaiming 'I had so much fun in class today, and I learned how to write a homily' (rather than, look what I learned on the internet). I am reminded of an anecdote of an old preacher who had had his study vandalized. He lost most of his research material, and though his ward was poor, one parishioner donated his old computer to the church. This was when I was a youth, and the internet was much younger. The preacher was apparently suspicious of the computer but Hans (the donor) showed the skeptic a website that allowed him to search all editions of the bible, side by side. The old man apparently sent Hans off politely, but with finality. The punchline is that two weeks later (after a dreadfully dreary sermon regarding vandalism and respect for the church) the preacher came to the lecture full of vigor and delivered an uplifting speech about the joys of the internet. He finished by calling on the congregation to say a quiet thank you to the men and women who worked so hard to establish http:/// .

(3) Imagine a school district (and this one is a stretch) where the students themselves are totally unaware of digital literacy. As digital literacy projects in impoverished countries are finding, children of all backgrounds are eager enough learners that the media never seems to pose an obstacle. All a teacher needs to do in a situation like this is to demonstrate the value of digital literacy, and the students will quickly become self teachers. I recommend teaching them to play games; this is the way I taught my nephew to navigate the internet, and now he can almost out Google me!

So there are ways of tackling all of these 'attitudinal' issues surrounding digital literacy in the classroom. What can we do about hardware availability? This is hard to answer for me, because I recognize the thorn that capital projects pose to administrators and educators alike. Bringing computers to a school without a lab, or classroom computers, can seem like a pipe dream. Even a modest twenty-screen lab stocked with refurbished educational Dell-PC, costing 500$ each, would run a school ten thousand dollars. There would also need to be a room for this, and a teacher. This money, room and staffing would need to come from somewhere else.

One solution is to beg an administrator to scrimp and save a little each year so that the school can afford a lab in another decade. This is not unrealistic, if all the teachers who support digital literacy are willing to go without certain luxuries for a while. Another is to resolutely accept that your school will not have a lab, and make arrangements to take the classes on regular field trips to the local library's lab. Finally, you, the teacher, could simply use one computer to model on and assign computer homework, asking the students to go to the libraries and cafe's on their own time.

What these 'solutions' lack is a relationship to digital literacy. My proposal is to solve this problem while training the kids to be digitally literate.

So I was mulling over this problem while considering the 'have' schools. While some schools are wresting with the unavailability of basic resources, some are out changing the world! There are schools that fund raise for charities, and there are schools that build legacies within communities. One school, Centennial in Port Coquitlam, built a fish hatchery in Mossom Creek over a decade ago, and classes at that school still maintain the stocks that their predecessors helped to rebuild.

So this got me thinking (more) ...

I envision a project which takes elements of the Mossom Creek hatchery and combines them with principles I learned from Marco Torres. Students want a stage, a studio, and a community. Students want to build things that they can call their own. Torres, who built a district wide tech support network for his school system by getting students to help their teachers, has proven that students like to be helpful.

I propose that the stage we offer students is the community eye, and that we make that community as big as possible by turning our classroom into a studio where students can go out and fix this problem. Social justice educators talk about 'service learning', and that is what I would like to do - build a service center at school.

The idea is simple: what is a refurbished Dell-PC? A computer that someone didn't want anymore (or that broke, or that was mis-packaged, or that simply sat on the shelf too long) which Dell has fixed up just enough to allow students to learn about computing basics. Think of another common educational computer - the ACER netbook. The netbook is just a cheap, small, simple navigation notebook, optimized for 'surfing' by omiting space for big technical programs. You could never run "Final Cut Pro 6" on one of these systems, but then again, we don't need to do that at school, do we.

I wonder how many homes in Vancouver have old, unplugged computers acting as bookshelves in them. These computers lack fancy graphics cards and high-speed duo-core processors, but they all have central processors and memory. Each one can be made as functional as a factory rebuild or a light-duty net-computer. We just need manpower. I say use student power!

Some people may stop me here, and claim that this is wrong, that using students to produce goods is un-ethical. I remember computer-science class at Carson Graham, ten years ago, where everyone got access to a communal stack of processor parts, and was allowed to build whatever they wanted. What was missing from that class was more parts and (more importantly) a professional manager. Unless anyone objects to improving the quality of computer sciences classes, I ask any objectors if, after teaching students how to rebuild computers, may we then use them to teach people more?

This idea obviously requires certain support. First, we need space at school. This may be the big problem, but if we are modest in our requests in life, we succeed. Then we need lots of used computers. I know I said that they are in those houses, but how doe we get them out from under the books they're supporting and into our school. Last, we need someone to run this program. That may sound like a big task for you, but I have an idea that will make this problem into an opportunity.

First, we need a space - or as Torres says, a studio for our students. Although an entire classroom would be a good studio, a modest proposal may be more effective. Many schools use converted storage spaced for departmental prep rooms, and small counseling suites for team meeting spaces. One of these spaces, however modest, can become the home of a computer workshop. All a workshop needs is space for well-organized storage, two or more tables and electrical plug ins. Once a few projects have been completed (ie, a few computers have been commissioned for school work) it should be easy to convince the school of the value of the project.

Second, we need materials. Here is the first part of creating a community. Sending home notices in a district which cannot afford computers may not yield very many results. Instead, embrace digital media and ask students to help design a notice (PDF) and to begin e-mailing it to their contacts. Your students may blog about the project, or twitter it, or facebook/myspace it. Ask your students to find ways to get the word out - you can create a wiki to plan the project, and serve as a public information suite. In addition, have someone tip off the local papers that a school is doing all this to solve an underfunding problem. Now that the project is in the community eye the students will feel a sense of social responsibility, and this will sustain the project through to completion. The project will return to the public eye when the computers start becoming available for school use. In this respect, this project becomes a legacy, where your school program becomes a resource in addition to a teaching tool.

The last, and most daunting seeming element of this proposal is a director; someone to coordinate the students and resources within the space. As hard as finding staffing is, we are not looking for a teacher, per se, but an expert. Marco Torres recommends filling your rolodex with a "long list of Yodas ". It is the responsibility or a new teacher to have or find contacts and peers who have expertise in the teacher's field. University students (particularly those applying for PDP) are usually eager to help out in schools. I know I was in part motivated to dedicating five days a week to the creation and maintenance of an improv theater program at a high school by being offered a modest (very modest) honorarium. Offering a tenth or twentieth of the 10 000$ figure mentioned earlier to a student, per year, to maintain a program like this is a small price to pay. Again, it falls to the teacher's ability to find an appropriate expert. This expert, then, along with the support of teacher, is expected to supervise and guide the rebuilding of the computers by the students.


Is this ambitious? Yes! Is it possible? Yes, as well! Every teacher should have a personal goal, something to motivate them, in addition to classwork. This project can be undertaken in many different ways, and has an obvious payoff. In addition, the secondary product of this project - the technical learning that the participants obtain - makes this solution a better alternative than simply petitioning the PAC for money to pay Dell for doing the work for us (and cheating us of the learning).


Hmm. I think we have enough problems with regular old book learnin' literacy; I'm not sure we need to focus even more on so-called digital literacy in schools. Kids become pretty digital-literate on their own anyway, don't they?

You recommend letting kids play internet games so that they can become "self teachers". Is this really a good idea? First of all, becoming experts at Googling isn't much of a skill. And the idea of self-teaching is a bit of a disastrous one for maintaining any sort of educational tradition. Tradition is fast dying out, and I don't think we need hammer more nails into the coffin, especially from the inside of the casket, so to speak; that is, from inside the education system. Reliance on modern technology has been bad for that other technology - books - which I think is the technology we should be focusing on, rather than encouring kids to become more proficient at the very thing that keeps them away from books: the internet.

As a student and future professor, Jackson, don't you find anything worrying about the infiltration of technology into the classroom?



Technology is coming - and the books in that old book learnin' are going out of style. The only way to keep education contemporary is to adapt. If texts are becoming digital, then education must follow. When a teacher teaches a subject, they are competing with the media for their student's attention. If the teacher's tools are dusty old, two dimensional books, then the war will be lost. To compete with TV and video games, education must be as interactive and absorbing and on-demand as its competitors. Kids are going to the internet, and I would rather be the guide than the nay-sayer. If abstinence campaigns in the USA lead to more teen pregnancies than safe-sex campaigns, then an education system which ignored technology will lead to kids running around un-aided in the digital playground

I worry about teachers who refuse to update their style, because they are pushing kids towards the digital commons, without guidance.



Replying to Hogan:
Hogan, you may have been in post-secondary too long but don't you remember all the out-dated textbooks schools had to deal with? Wouldn't it be great to just have digital access to the most updated works? It would save money and even increase the amount of books available. Books fall apart from hand to hand whereas digital textbooks can last awhile and be easily edited when a new version comes out. Doesn't it seem silly to you that when new science/math books come out they charge for a whole new book despite a few corrections for modernity? Would you rather buy a new Astronomy textbook whose biggest change is the exclusion of Pluto from the solar system or just a quick digital update on such a trivial change?



Replying to Jackson:
I think the idea can work. But I suggest some serious "baby steps" if you decide to take this project on. For example, first just see if anyone is willing to donate an old computer to you. One that works well but is just old. You may find you have a good collection. But if you need more comps then move on to ones that may be only missing a monitor, and your next baby step would be to just gather monitors (to obviously use with the monitor-less computers). Then I would go for Ram sticks, then actual hard-drives.



Well, I'm not calling for digital "abstinence", only for (to run with the analogy) kids not fucking inside the classroom. So, are you suggesting that kids can learn about history, art, philosophy, science, politics, social studies, etc. on computers than by books and discussion? Sure, computers can be (and are) a great aid to learning, especially as Alamir points out, with often updated science textbooks.

You say, Jackson, that to "compete with TV and video games, education must be as interactive and absorbing and on-demand as its competitors". Isn't this fighting fire with fire? If part of education is to foster a good attention span and self-discipline (and it is) I don't see how using the exciting, fast and easy style of internet technology is going to do anything except shorten their attention span and make them even more vulnerable to everything non-bookish at precisely the time when they need to be reading and discussing books. The content doesn't matter, it's the form of computer technology that lowers the attentions span, since everything is made fast, flashy and easy.

What I do remember from elementary to high school, when the internet was still in its infancy, was that I felt it to be very much a break from regular school stuff. I felt it wasn't learning at all. I was glad for it because I wasn't learning. And when they tried to make us "computer literate", teaching us the basics of, say, word processing (or using the embryonic, almost imageless internet), it became just as boring and tedious as any other class.

So, I think Alamir's right about the needless textbook updates, but you'll have to work harder, Jackson, to convince me that kids don't get enough of an internet education outside the classroom as it is, and that we need to bring more internet into the classrooms, which are already suffering from internet-induced short attention spans.


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